Film Reviews

THE SACRAMENT

By • Jun 2nd, 2014 •

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Decades ago I had a friend in screenwriter Ernest Tidyman, a former newspaper reporter whose forte was covering ‘the street.’ He was contacted when William Friedkin had gone through several scripts for THE FRENCH CONNECTION and still hadn’t found the right tone. By the time Ernest took a shot at it, there was, he told me, only fourteen thousand left in the screenplay budget. However, his screenplay won him an Academy Award his first time out, so the meager financial compensation was something he could live with.

Tidyman lived in a lovely mansion in Connecticut (it wasn’t unusual for screenwriters to have their homes on the East Coast and their agents out West). A smaller adjacent house contained his headquarters. In addition to assistants, he had a large drawing board divided into columns with all the top current directors listed, what projects they were presently working on, shoot and completion dates, etc. He was locking horns with Hollywood as if it were a military operation. His next project was HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER for Clint Eastwood. And then, a few years later, he wrote the two-part, 1980 teleplay about the Jonestown Massacre – GUYANA TRAGEDY: THE STORY OF JIM JONES

Occasionally, over those years, he would ask me to help him solve screenwriting problems, purely in terms of form, not content. I’d dig up a screenplay for a film he’d loved and send it to him, so that he could see the way another writer had solved a certain kind of problem. When it came to Jim Jones’ horrific story, I was able to obtain an audio cassette tape of the final hour of the massacre, with the crying and screaming of the cult members, the raving of Jones, and the tapering off of the chaos as they all died. He reproduced it pretty much verbatim in his teleplay, for which, as a producer, he was nominated for an Emmy.

Ti West’s THE SACRAMENT is a modern take on the Jim Jones tragedy, vastly revisionist in the way it’s shot. Narratively it sticks closer to the earlier version. I gather he must have heard the same tape I listened to, because dialogue I remember well is reproduced verbatim once again. Of course the exact depiction and meaning of this dialogue has always been open to interpretation, since the old audio-tape didn’t include visuals.

I have to say, much as I liked Ernest’s version, West’s is the superior film. The quasi found footage approach works beautifully, his handling of a large cast is flawless, and his casting choices are very sly. Gene Jones is an inspired decision for the paranoid faux savior. Projecting a good old boy persona, we quickly become extremely nervous about his perceptions and his plans for the inhabitants of his commune.

The person I brought to the screening of THE SACRAMENT was unfamiliar with the history of the Jonestown massacre, but was moved by the film nonetheless. So while it’s the latest spin on a specific, dreadful case of spiritually vulnerable people being manipulated, abused and murdered, it is, as it always was, a serious cautionary tale for Jones’s time, our time, and times to come.

I’ve enjoyed seeing West mature as a filmmaker. I wasn’t crazy about THE ROOST, but I liked each successive film better than the last. THE INKEEPERS had been my fave up until now. His grip on cinema storytelling is certainly expanding with each venture. And while the year is admittedly young, as of now THE SACRAMENT is one of the two best films I’ve seen this year.

On a six degrees of Kevin Bacon note, a friend of mine, Oren Shai, has just completed a feature film called THE FRONTIER. After seeing West’s THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL, he was determined to secure the acting services of Jocelin Donahue, DEVIL’s leading lady, for the starring role in his project. His determination, and his faith in her abilities, paid off. She’s terrific in the part.

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One Response »

  1. Even smaller world-I too was in The Frontier. I love Oren.

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